Life and times

Jour­nal­ist and au­thor Gau­tam Malkani

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - Contents -

I’VE FI­NALLY VA­CATED my self-stor­age unit. For the first time in seven years, all my be­long­ings re­side in my place of res­i­dence. No more trekking across Lon­don to re­trieve a par­tic­u­lar fry­ing pan, desk lamp or pair of train­ers. No more labyrinth of cor­ri­dors lined with pad­locks.

For four of those years, I more or less lived out of stor­age – my lodg­ings ranged from a cousin’s liv­ing room to var­i­ous short-let flats and bud­get ho­tels. I would visit the stor­age unit ev­ery few weeks, bor­row­ing and re­turn­ing items as if it was a li­brary.

Bid­ding farewell to the unit, I don’t dwell on the rea­sons and likely sym­bol­ism be­hind my ear­lier dys­func­tional liv­ing ar­range­ments. I’m more in­ter­ested in the spe­cific is­sues thrown up by liv­ing out of self-stor­age. For in­stance, when you can only lug around a suit­case or two, you need cri­te­ria for se­lect­ing and ro­tat­ing the stuff you re­trieve and the stuff you re­turn. The books, the records, the cloth­ing.

To be­gin with, I’d try to en­sure I al­ways had a va­ri­ety of these things to hand. I fig­ured that would min­imise my chances of feel­ing frus­trated at not hav­ing ac­cess to a par­tic­u­lar genre or vibe or colour in the mid­dle of the work­ing week. How­ever, this se­lec­tion strat­egy failed. Af­ter all, if I was re-read­ing Kafka, there’d be no point in also hav­ing my copy of an El­more Leonard crime ca­per to hand. I’d just want more of my Kafka books. Like­wise, I learnt that if I bor­rowed one of my Leonard Co­hen records, it would be bet­ter to also take some Nick Cave rather than a Daft Punk al­bum. In this way, my selec­tions be­came more ho­moge­nous. Even the clothes I fetched started fol­low­ing this same logic: not so much sea­sonal as sub­cul­tural. Liv­ing out of self-stor­age re­sulted in more and more hard­core ver­sions of each of my dif­fer­ent selves.

MY NEW NOVEL partly ex­plores how so­cial me­dia and search en­gines can sim­i­larly pull peo­ple into si­los of sel­f­re­in­forc­ing predilec­tions and opin­ions. Be­cause tech com­pa­nies’ busi­ness mod­els are based on per­son­alised ads and con­tent, their al­go­rithms feed us more and more help­ings of things we al­ready like to click on.

This week, sev­eral peo­ple have asked me how I man­aged to write such a timely novel. But the truth is, I wasn’t try­ing to be top­i­cal. The book is about a young man car­ing for his sick mother. As his car­ing role grows more in­ti­mate, he feels haunted by the no­tion of the Oedi­pal com­plex. I fig­ured that to­day’s equiv­a­lent of those an­cient or­a­cles would be Google and Face­book, both of which have grown eerily pre­dic­tive and psy­chic by crunch­ing our dig­i­tal data.

PER­HAPS UN­SUR­PRIS­INGLY, my flat is now full of boxes. I even stacked a cou­ple on one side of my dou­ble bed. I’d been sleep­ing be­side them for days think­ing they just con­tained some old T-shirts. But then I dis­cov­ered that my clothes were ac­tu­ally act­ing as bub­ble wrap­ping for some of my late mother’s be­long­ings, which I was un­able to part with when she died 20 years ago. Their sen­ti­men­tal value hasn’t di­min­ished over time: I still can’t bring my­self to do­nate or dis­pose of any of them. How­ever, in­stead of fo­cus­ing on the ob­vi­ous sym­bol­ism about un­re­solved grief, I start freak­ing out over the sym­bol­ism of hav­ing slept be­side what re­mains of my mother. I’m go­ing to start look­ing for an­other self-stor­age unit.

Dis­tor­tion, by Gau­tam Malkani, is pub­lished by Un­bound, £16.99

I’d visit the stor­age unit ev­ery few weeks, bor­row­ing and re­turn­ing items as if it was a li­brary

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